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Joe Neal: How he fights HIV in the State House

Rep. Joe Neal has been a champion for HIV victims in the SC legislature.
Rep. Joe Neal has been a champion for HIV victims in the SC legislature. The State

Senator Bubba leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, ready to face a group of HIV advocates who had come to see him in his State House office.

He didn’t really want to talk about AIDS — it’s not a topic for polite company. Besides, he thinks people who have the disease brought it on themselves with their immoral behavior.

But those advocates really wanted to get through to Senator Bubba. They needed his vote for pumping money into a cash-strapped HIV drug program for the needy.

Senator Bubba batted back each appeal and argument, until they mentioned that South Carolina lost billions every year because of a work force weakened by HIV. A relatively small investment in treatment could lead to big savings.

And so they won over Senator Bubba.

Actually, Senator Bubba was Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, who was role playing with this group of advocates, preparing them to face real lawmakers.

Though the exercise in a State House office had watchers doubled over with laughter, its mission was serious and its end successful.

The session emboldened advocates to take to the halls of the state capitol, knocking on doors, moving lawmakers into an unprecedented direction in 2007: Approving millions of dollars for an HIV/AIDS drug program.

For a long time, Neal has been a State House champion for those with HIV/AIDS.

Ten years ago, he lost a cousin to AIDS.

“We were just stunned,” Neal said of his cousin, who died at age 35 just seven months after learning he was HIV-positive. A man his young cousins once had used “as a girl magnet” had shrunk to 85 pounds from 225 pounds, and thanked God for his imminent death.

“It drove home the point that this disease is indiscriminate,” Neal said.

For months, Neal worked with the task force, that included health officials, doctors, community advocates, drug-company representatives and people living with HIV — people who for the first time came together to pressure the Legislature.

That year, federal cutbacks caused a $3 million shortfall in the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which every year helps as many as 3,000 people who have little or no insurance get the medications they need. Program directors established a waiting list; it grew to almost 600 names in one year.

Although advocates didn’t get the $8 million they requested, lawmakers approved $3 million in recurring funds and a one-time allocation of $1 million — enough to eliminate the waiting list.

Neal and the task force persauded lawmakers that it was a small price to pay. A 2002 state economic impact study showed that $6.5 billion yearly is lost in wages and hospitalization of people with HIV/AIDS.

During the 2007-08 session, lawmakers easily approved an additional $2.4 million — for a total of $5.4 million — for the drug program.

That’s a sign to Neal that some lawmakers have come a long way in terms of addressing HIV/AIDS.

Still, others continue to have misconceptions, seeing HIV/AIDS as a disease of the poor, black or gay.

That means Senator Bubba still has work to do.

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